21 School District Consolidation

by Senator Bob Smith

 

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, New Jersey is currently spending more money per-pupil than any other state. We spent $ 10,145 on average in the 98-99 school year, nearly twice that of California, the nation's biggest state, which spent $5,801. We also topped our neighboring New York's spending per-pupil of $9344. If that price tag doesn't ask for public discussion, nothing else will.

 

New Jersey has 617 school districts. It needs only 21. As New Jersey property tax rates and taxpayer anger soars, all that is being offered to New Jerseyans is a rebate scheme that provides only temporary relief to the problem of climbing property tax rates while not beginning to address long-range solutions. Yet the largest portion of the New Jersey property tax dollar, the local school district, is considered untouchable. The local school district is outmoded. New Jersey's 617 small school districts should be eliminated and replaced by 21 county-based districts. The goal of high-quality education for New Jersey's children is a given, but how we finance and structure that goal is always open to debate.

The State Legislature is currently considering the idea of a Constitutional Convention to revamp the property tax as the primary source of funding for education costs. Isn't the question to be asked is whether our existing educational delivery system is as efficient as it should be?

 

The current system of 617 independent school districts is inherently designed to be the most inefficient educational services delivery in the United States. Eleven states --Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Wyoming --currently utilize

county school systems, either solely or in conjunction with additional districts for their larger urban centers. 

These states spend less than New Jersey and their school systems are more efficient in scope and structure to do the job of educating students for a complex world. My contention is that maintaining the present system of smaller school districts is inefficient and wasteful. A host of smaller school districts promotes duplication and inequities.

 

Consolidating the current 617 school districts into 21 county-based school districts would put our schools on a rational management basis and reduce duplication in such cost areas as transportation, maintenance, and purchasing. The savings from consolidated transportation services alone should justify county-based districts. Other benefits of county-based school districts could be realized. State and federal aid formulas to schools could be calculated and distributed on a more rational and equitable basis, and data collection necessary from computing aid formulas could be somewhat easier. Policy and management would be uniform. Teachers would have more job opportunities. Perhaps one of the more significant benefits of 21 county systems would be that magnet and other types of schools focused on the performing and creative arts, technology, sciences, and vocational training could be set up and integrated within the county system, thereby offering talented students more opportunities to pursue courses of study in line with their study preferences, career goals and aspirations.

 

Data shows that spinning off school districts into new districts only increases educational costs per-student, while consolidated districts decreases these costs. Various experts estimate that $1 billion to $1.5 billion in savings could be achieved by converting the current inefficient system to county-based school districts. Such savings could provide some real property-tax relief while seriously addressing how we can improve New Jersey's educational infrastructure without new property tax revenues. Let's deal with the major objection to consolidated county school districts, namely, that county school districts would mean loss of democratic local control, which we all consider a basic element of our political system. This couldn't be further from the truth. County boards of education can and should be elected bodies responsible to the voters, accessible to parents, educators, and students, and constituted on as broadly based a geographic and demographic representation as possible.

 

Nor would public oversight be diminished, because uniform county policies and data would be easier to monitor. It is important to remember that education will always need parental and community participation at the most fundamental level, the school itself.

 

Significantly, county-based school districts would enrich the democratic process because citizens, parents, school officials, and educators would have to discuss broader-based needs and consider the general good and welfare of all county students rather than just those within a small area.

 

Common goals would need to be formulated, the wider view taken, people from different areas and diverse backgrounds would need to work together and take the long range view. I have introduced a bill in the Senate, S 410, which calls for a non-binding public ballot question on whether we should shift to county-based school districts. It's time for public examination and debate on the issues of funding education.

Bob Smith

Bob Smith, represents the 17th District in the State Senate